It Ain’t Wrong for You to Play Along: Jon Batiste’s coming-of-age blockbuster

Jon Batiste has referred to WE ARE as a culmination, a bold claim for someone whose career has already proven so fruitful and unpredictable; in addition to his tenure with Stephen Colbert and his venerated association with Pixar, a quick scan of Spotify reveals 10 projects credited to his name, including the handsome, T-Bone Burnett-produced Hollywood Africans and a pair of live jazz recordings from 2019. But even a cursory listen to WE ARE proves that he is telling the truth. The album proceeds with a  purposefulness, confidence, and vision that suggest Batiste has effectively been apprenticing, honing skills that he’s only now summoning into the service of a fully-formed statement. Elsewhere, Batiste has christened WE ARE a “Black pop masterpiece,” another comment requiring some contextualization. It’s not a statement of hubris nor even an assessment of the album’s quality so much as a simple acknowledgement that he’s drawing from some particularly deep wells, synthesizing a variety of traditions into something that feels modern, lively, and accessible. This is one of those albums that sounds like it’s in dialogue with the ancestors, bringing history to bear on the concerns of the present. Indeed, Batiste recorded much of the album in quarantine, and wrote some of the material following a series of jazz marches and peaceful protests against the continued violence against Black bodies; it is a document of the George Floyd summer but also a reminder of all the historical ghosts we’ve yet to really reckon with. Conveying urgency in its sound and its steady momentum, WE ARE attests to its gestation in a pressure cooker… but it meets the moment with a graceful poise, a hopeful heart, and irrepressible joy. It’s hard to overstate the confident bearing of this record; its clarity of mission.

Loosely sequenced as a kind of bildungsroman, WE ARE posits Batiste’s coming-of-age in New Orleans as a model for collective awakening and engagement. The album journeys through blues, early rock and roll, R&B, and Black church music, with connective tissue provided by Batiste’s Soul-ish piano interstitials and grainy field recordings from his hometown. To list every Curtis Mayfield-styled string arrangement or diamond-cut James Brown groove might give the wrong impression— this is a work of synthesis and evolution, not pastiche— though it is at least worth mentioning how much the structure of the album resembles the imaginative, socially-conscious pop records of Stevie Wonder’s golden age. A student of history but by no means a stodgy traditionalist, Batiste understands you can’t celebrate Black music (nor the music of the South) without acknowledging hip-hop, which he does with surprisingly persuasive trap beats on the muggy, hometown-repping “BOYHOOD.” That he proves himself a nimble rapper is no surprise given how much this album celebrates Black voices, literally and figuratively: You’ll hear Batiste the hype man, the husky soul belter, and the smooth-talking loverman, plus the beaming voice of Mavis Staples as the oracle of ancestral wisdom. Indeed, one of the triumphs of the album is how much it signifies through pure sound. “CRY” gets around to acknowledging the plight of migrants and immigrants, but the lyrics are almost unnecessary; everything from its form to its solemn gait attests to an unspoken history of lament, in much the same way that “WE ARE” carries so much culture and context in its crisp marching band rumble. These sounds articulate above and beyond written language.

In fact, Batiste’s lyrics are the only component of the album that ever feel anything less than sure-footed, mostly when his efforts to balance autobiography with universality coalesce into generalization. “SHOW ME THE WAY” has a sweet premise— the singer is inviting a woman home with him for the chaste yet intimate act of spinning some records together—  but Batiste’s laundry list of luminaries, including the Beatles and the Stones, skews a little too generic. (A reference to jazz flutist Hubert Laws is the one really fascinating insight into Batiste’s own stacks of wax.) He sounds much more confident in “BOYHOOD,” where even his references to the most touristy of New Orleans haunts are delivered with hometown pride and familiarity. And maybe in the end, Batiste’s attempts to make WE ARE as broad as possible are part of its point, and key to its charm. Listening to the album over and over again, I thought a few times of Prince, another Black music polymath who gave the impression he could do anything, and whose superhumanity was often in service of weirdness, cheerful transgression, and kink. By contrast, Batiste’s vibe is wholesomeness. (“ADULTHOOD” reminds us all to go to church on Sunday; “BOYHOOD” features a fatherly voice declaring that he’s proud, just in case any listener needs to hear it.) When he creates loose-limbed, hip-shaking funk, as he does on “FREEDOM,” it’s not narrowly erotic so much as it’s broadly affirming of Black dignity, and suggestive of an entire range of human experience. When he sings “I just need you,” which he does on the inhibition-slaying “I NEED YOU,” he could be addressing anyone, but he is definitely addressing you, the listener. WE ARE is doggedly inspirational and clearly quite serious in its premise of unity, forward motion, and hope. And because it’s also clear-eyed in its lament, that premise feels credible. This album is good enough to make true believers out of just about anyone.

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